JERUSALEM - Vice President Joe Biden condemned an Israeli plan to build hundreds of homes in disputed east Jerusalem yesterday, a disagreement that tarnished a high-profile visit that had been aimed at repairing ties with the Jewish state and kickstarting Mideast peace talks.
Israel's Interior Ministry said late yesterday it approved construction of 1,600 new apartments, an embarrassing setback for Biden after a day of meetings with top Israeli officials.
Although ministry officials said the announcement was procedural and unconnected to the visit, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the prime minister was blindsided and tried to contain the damage at a late-night dinner with Biden.
Nonetheless, Biden issued a harshly worded statement after the dinner, saying its timing was especially troubling, coming on the eve of a new round of U.S.-mediated peace talks.
"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now," Biden said.
"We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them," he added, warning that "unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations."
Relations between Israel and the Obama administration have been chilly because of the settlement issue, and one of Biden's main goals had been to try to patch up ties. Biden is the highest-level member of the Obama administration to visit Israel.
The United States, like the Palestinians and the rest of the international community, believes that Israeli settlements built on lands claimed by the Palestinians, including east Jerusalem, undermine peace prospects. President Barack Obama has been more outspoken on the issue than his predecessors.
Netanyahu has rebuffed calls from the White House to halt all settlement activity, agreeing only to a limited freeze that does not include east Jerusalem.
Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed east Jerusalem. Israel considers its east Jerusalem neighborhoods as part of its undivided capital, but the annexation has never been internationally recognized.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said the new homes would be built in Ramat Shlomo, an existing neighborhood for ultra-Orthodox Jews.